Doosedly Dilatory by Bill Nye

Story type: Essay

Since the investigation of Washington pension attorneys, it is a little remarkable how scarce in the newspapers is the appearance of advertisements like this.

Pensions! Thousands of soldiers of the late war are still entitled to pensions with the large accumulations since the injury was received. We procure pensions, back pay, allowances. Appear in the courts for nonresident clients in United States land cases, etc. Address Skinnem & Co., Washington, D.C.

I didn’t participate in the late war, but I have had some experience in putting a few friends and neighbors on the track of a pension. Those who have tried it will remember some of the details. It always seemed to me a little more difficult somehow for a man who had lost both legs at Antietam, than for the man who got his nose pulled off at an election three years after the war closed. It, of course, depended a good deal on the extemporaneous affidavit qualifications of the applicant. About five years ago an acquaintance came to me and said he wanted to get a pension from the government, and that he hadn’t the first idea about the details. He didn’t know whether he should apply to the President or to the Secretary of State. Would I “kind of put him onto the racket.” I asked him what he wanted a pension for, and he said his injury didn’t show much, but it prevented his pursuit of kopecks and happiness. He had nine children by his first wife, and if he could get a pension he desired to marry again.

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As to the nature of his injuries, he said that at the battle of Fair Oaks he supported his command by secreting himself behind a rail fence and harassing the enemy from time to time, by a system of coldness and neglect on his part. While thus employed in breaking the back of the Confederacy, a solid shot struck a crooked rail on which he was sitting, in such a way as to jar his spinal column. From this concussion he had never fully recovered. He didn’t notice it any more while sitting down and quiet, but the moment he began to do manual labor or to stand on his feet too long, unless he had a bar or something to lean up against, he felt the cold chill run up his back and life was no object.

I told him that I was too busy to attend to it, and asked him why he didn’t put his case in the hands of some Washington attorney, who could be on the ground and attend to it. He decided that he would, so he wrote to one of these philanthropists whom we will call Fitznoodle. I give him the nom de plume of Fitznoodle to nip a $20,000 libel suit in the bud. Well, Fitznoodle sent back some blanks for the claimant to sign, by which he bound himself, his heirs, executors, representatives and assigns, firmly by these presents to pay to said Fitznoodle, the necessary fees for postage, stationery, car fare, concert tickets, and office rent, while said claim was in the hands of the pension department. He said in a letter that he would have to ask for $2, please, to pay for postage. He inclosed a circular in which he begged to refer the claimant to a reformed member of the bar of the District of Columbia, a backslidden foreign minister and three prominent men who had been dead eleven years by the watch. In a postscript he again alluded to the $2 in a casual way, waved the American flag two times, and begged leave to subscribe himself once more. “Yours Fraternally and professionally, Good Samaritan Fitznoodle, Attorney at Law, Solicitor in Chancery, and Promotor of Even-handed Justice in and for the District of Columbia.” The claimant sent his $2, not necessarily for publication, but as a guaranty of good faith.

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Later on Mr. Fitznoodle said that the first step would be to file a declaration enclosing $5 and the names of two witnesses who were present when the claimant was born, and could identify him as the same man who enlisted from Emporia in the Thirteenth Kansas Nighthawks. Five dollars must be enclosed to defray the expenses of a trip to the office of the commissioner of pensions, which trip would naturally take in eleven saloons and ten cents in car fare. “P.S.–Attach to the declaration the signature and seal of a notary public of pure character, $5, the certificate of the clerk of a court of record as to the genuineness of the signature of the notary public, his term of appointment and $5.” These documents were sent, after which there was a lull of about three months. Then the swelling in Mr. Fitznoodle’s head had gone down a little, but there was still a seal brown taste in his mouth. So he wrote the claimant that it would be necessary to jog the memory of the department about $3 dollars worth; and to file collateral testimony setting forth that claimant was a native born American or that he had declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, that he had not formed nor expressed an opinion for or against the accused, which the testimony would not eradicate, that he would enclose $3, and that he had never before applied for a pension. After awhile a circular from the pension end of the department was received, stating that the claimant’s application had been received, filed and docketed No. 188,935,062-1/2, on page 9,847 of book G, on the thumb-hand side as you come in on the New York train. On the strength of this document the claimant went to the grocery and bought an ecru-colored ham, a sack of corn meal and a pound of tobacco. In June Mr. Fitznoodle sent a blank to be filled out by the claimant, stating whether he had or had not been baptized prior to his enlistment; and, if so, to what extent, and how he liked it so far as he had gone. This was to be sworn to before two witnesses, who were to be male, if possible, and if not, the department would insist on their being female. These witnesses must swear that they had no interest in the said claim, or anything else. On receipt of this, together with $5 in postoffice money order or New York draft, the document would be filed and, no doubt, acted upon at once. In July, a note came from the attorney saying that he regretted to write that the pension department was now 250,000 claims behind, and if business was taken up in its regular order, the claim under discussion might not be reached for between nine and ten years. However, it would be possible to “expedite” the claim, if $25 could be remitted for the purpose of buying a spike-tail coat and plug hat, in which to appear before the commissioner of pensions and mash him flat on the shape of the attorney. As the claimant didn’t know much of the practical working of the machinery of government, he swallowed this pill and remitted the $25. Here followed a good deal of red tape and international monkeying during which the claimant was alternately taking an oath to support the constitution of the United States, and promising to support the constitution and by-laws of Mr. Fitznoodle. The claimant was constantly assured that his claim was a good one and on these autograph letters written with a type-writer, the war-born veteran with a concussed vertebra bought groceries and secured the funds to pay his assessments.

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For a number of years I heard nothing of the claim, but a few months ago, when Mr. Fitznoodle was arrested and jerked into the presence of the grand jury, a Washington friend wrote me that the officers found in his table a letter addressed to the man who was jarred in the rear of the Union army, and in which (the letter, I mean), he alluded to the long and pleasant correspondence which had sprung up between them as lawyer and client, and regretting that, as the claim would soon be allowed, their friendly relations would no doubt cease, would he please forward $13 to pay freight on the pension money, and also a lock of his hair that Mr. Fitznoodle could weave into a watchchain and wear always. As the claimant does not need the papers, he probably thinks by this time that Mr. Good Samaritan Fitznoodle has been kidnapped and thrown into the moaning, hungry sea.

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